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Council Should Be More Transparent - Here's How

Council before Dave

Since joining St. John’s City Council in fall 2013, I've learned a lot about how City Hall works, and I've been doing what I can to share this knowledge with the public.

While media interviews, blogs posts, and tweets are helpful, and our new Engagement Framework goes a long way to changing the way City Hall interacts with residents, there's one glaring part of our democracy that needs some work: the transparency of Council.

First and foremost, I want to state that there are no "back room deals" or secret meetings of Council.

Council meets once a week for a "Special Meeting of Council" where sensitive topics related to human resources, legal issues or interprovincial affairs are discussed. These meetings are all recorded and most information is, or can be, made available to the public. In the case of a legal challenge, all information would be made available to the courts.

The fact is that most of Council's group discussions take place in publicly accessible standing committee meetings, which are informed by staff as well as citizen-led advisory committees.

But, just because discussions and decisions are technically accessible to the public doesn't mean they're always easy to access or even to understand. So, there is much more we can and should do to "open up" Council, and I’d like to share with you some ideas I've been pursuing and will make a priority in my next term, if elected.

1) Make standing committee meetings accessible

Standing committees are the primary committees of Council. Council and staff meet to discuss ongoing work at City Hall and this is where Council gives direction and feedback to staff on behalf of residents. These discussions are often very constructive and fluid, with lots of questions, answers and brainstorming.

I wish the public could see these meetings because it's where true dialogue takes place, unlike in the weekly public meeting (which I'll discuss in a moment).

In fact, the public can see these meetings! They are announced on the City's website and are open to visitors. But you probably didn't know that, and that's a big stumbling block to transparency.

Council has discussed this before and made minimal progress, but I propose that we do a better job of promoting these standing committee meetings, share agendas and minutes more effectively, and hold standing committee meetings in the public chamber.

2) Provide a Q&A period at weekly public meetings

One aspect of our public meetings that I've always felt a little uncomfortable about is that visitors must remain quiet and not participate. I see the logic in this -- we can't have anyone and everyone talking whenever they want. But to not have a chance to speak at a "public meeting" seems like a missed opportunity to hear citizen input.

Many councils across Canada and the world -- even right here in Newfoundland and Labrador, I'm told -- have addressed this issue by providing something of a "Q&A" period before and/or after regular meetings. These would have to be organized so that they're orderly and effective, but, in principle, I think it's a great idea and we should do it here in St. John's.

3) Change the format of the weekly public meeting

Something that has always frustrated me is the format of our weekly public meetings. We use a process called "Robert's Rules" which basically works like this: a councillor can "table a motion" for decision by Council, which is then "debated" by the group.

This "debate" is a misleading word, however. The councillor who tables the motion can speak to why they are presenting the motion, and then each councillor can get up to five minutes to speak only once to the issue. There might be opportunities for a councillor to ask for clarification, but otherwise there is no back-and-forth to hash out the ideas and possibilities.

This is such a restrictive way to present and discuss issues because it forces each councillor to determine their position on the issue before coming to Council and then to make one statement and hope they receive no new information that might make them change their mind. There's certainly little opportunity to ask multiple critical questions to ensure we're making the right decision.

This whole approach means that, unless a councillor says something outrageous or otherwise newsworthy, citizens will get the impression that all decisions are made beforehand and that the meeting itself is just theatre. They aren't totally wrong, unfortunately.

There are many good reasons we follow Robert's Rules (think: orderly meetings help get through a full agenda), so it might be challenging to adopt a new process. But, we should look into how we might enable more true discussion of issue at these public meetings.

4) Live stream and post our meetings online

Finally, and this is something we've been working on at City Hall, is to make our public meetings accessible to as large an audience as possible. This means broadcasting them on the internet for all to see.

The reason we haven't done this to-date is that there are some logistical challenges to overcome. We have to ensure the video and sound quality are appropriate, and someone has to edit and upload the videos. Right now, volunteers at Rogers do the filming and editing, and we're in talks to get these meetings up on their -- or perhaps the City's -- website.

Let's do this now

You may be wondering why we haven't already made these changes. The truth is that there has been some movement on a few of them, but it's time I made them a priority. I commit to driving these issues and improving the transparency of Council starting now and into my next term, if re-elected.

What other ideas do you have that could make Council more accessible and transparent?

Written by Dave Lane at 08:11

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